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Can American Democracy Recover?

Both McCain and Obama speak to a broad and deepening sense among Americans not only that the country is moving in the wrong direction, but that there is something seriously wrong and corrupt with our democracy.
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With the election sweeps last night by Barack Obama and John McCain, the most pro-reform candidates in each party are headed toward the presidential nominations. McCain's victory may partially be a fluke of a weak competitive field. But it is no coincidence that McCain and Obama are careering toward a showdown in November--and that the other maverick hoping to rally moderates and independents, Michael Bloomberg, is being forced to the sidelines.

Both McCain and Obama speak, albeit in very different tones, to a broad and deepening sense among Americans not only that the country is moving in the wrong direction, but that there is something seriously wrong and corrupt with our democracy. McCain may represent more of the same failed Bush approach to foreign affairs--stay the course in Iraq (forever if necessary), project America's power unilaterally, and be prepared to bomb Iran--but he is one of the few Republicans who has had the principle and integrity to challenge some of the sleaziest elements of our democracy, such as the broken system of campaign finance and the swelling tide of wasteful legislative earmarks. Moreover, both McCain and Obama speak to (and will compete for) the large swath of the political center in America that is disgusted with the polarization and coarsening of our political life. With the march to the nomination of these two figures--one deeply conservative, the other genuinely progressive, yet each more inclined than his primary opponents to reach for the center--Americans are signaling that they want reform.

The resolve to repair our own democracy, and the debate on how to do so, cannot come too soon. The next president will face a staggering agenda of deferred problems and erupting crises: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation, climate change, economic recession, collapsing home mortgages, unaffordable health care, Social Security and Medicare reform, and the country's disintegrating physical infrastructure (to name a few). Forging viable and creative responses to these vexing issues (any one of which could drag down the next presidency) will require a degree of bipartisan cooperation and mobilization for a higher national purpose that has been rare in recent decades. This is a major reason why not just independents but increasingly a majority of Democrats have been opting for Obama, and why not just independents but a large plurality of Republicans have opted for McCain as their strongest candidate.

The burning foreign and domestic challenges of the next presidency cannot be resolved with a narrow political majority. Getting out of Iraq will require vigorous diplomacy, shrewd military and political maneuvering, and bipartisan cover for the next president to take some calculated risks to try to stabilize Iraq and then draw down. The only way to stop the Islamic Republic of Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is to offer it a bargain so sweeping and enticing that it could not refuse it without grave further damage to its waning legitimacy. To pursue such bold initiatives, the next president will need to rebuild at least some of the lost tradition of bipartisanship in foreign policy. Slash-and-burn politics as usual is not going to get us there. Neither can it get us to the kind of radical steps--a serious gasoline or carbon tax, a sweeping set of financial incentives to invest in renewable energy--needed to arrest global warming. Nothing would be more catastrophic for the United States (and the rest of humanity) than a global meltdown, and the tipping point for sparing the planet or not could well come as soon as the next presidency.

So pick a major issue and ask yourself: Can we really get the kind of transformative change we want without tearing up the deep trenches of the American political landscape and building new coalitions?

Next to bankruptcy of our social safety net, nuclear terrorism, or a melting of the polar icecaps, reforming American democracy may seem a quaint and secondary issue. So 97 percent of congressional incumbents waltz back to office every two years with the protection of obscenely gerrymandered districts. So public officials have to spend inordinate amounts of time raising money from big donors and powerful interests to get reelected. So we can't run an election as efficiently as India, and we are one of the few democracies without a national electoral commission that can at least set common standards. So what passes for a national electoral commission isn't even functioning because it has almost no members left, due to partisan gridlock. So the Congress and Executive branch have become a revolving door of lobbyists and special interests. So what?

So, how are we going to come to grips with the problems we have been kicking down the road for years and decades if we don't get a more open, honest, and responsive democracy? How are we going to outmaneuver the legions of special interests that will try to block fundamental reform--of health care, the housing market, energy, you name it--if we don't level their inordinate power? And how can we help other people to achieve freedom and democracy if we can't even defend it and repair here at home? What, then, is left of our shattered credibility and shredded soft power in the world?

One of the most fascinating aspects of this election season is how avidly it is being followed around the world. The dollar may be in the tank thanks to the Bush administration's fiscal recklessness. Our moral standing may be at an all-time low thanks to its global blunders and hypocrisy. But the world has not given up on America, and other societies know that none of the big global problems can be solved without America playing a responsible leading role.

Increasingly, policy makers and thinkers elsewhere in the world question whether the United States can recover its moral credibility, its economic vitality, and even its military capacity after squandering so much of it all in Iraq. Others doubt that America can craft the new kind of global leadership that is necessary for a multipolar world, or that it can--in the wake of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, and warrantless surveillance--become again a beacon for democratic practice and hope in the world. We have lost a lot of ground, treasure, blood, and time in the last seven years. But righting the damage is fist and foremost a question of leadership.

Can we recover? There seems to be an answer emerging from the creative turbulence of our democratic process. Yes, we can.